Pat and I have been pouring over early (very early) UMVA newsletters. This ephemera goes back to 1975 and UMVA’s first issue. What struck us was, not how much has changed, but how much has stayed the same. The struggle goes on. Artists continue to look for recognition, believing their work is of personal and or social importance. Bureaucracies control not only the purse strings, but how the artists must represent themselves in order to be taken seriously. Nothing much has changed.
Pat and I moved from Maine to the west of Ireland 12 years ago. We made the decision to shake our lives up, to turn things upside down, to get out of the comfort zone. We knew Ireland to be a country rich in artistic legacy, a country that supports the arts and its artists. The move turned out to be challenging, but it was the challenge we ultimately sought, a new horizon, but the closer you to get to that line, the more familiar things become.
For the past 4 years now we have curated exhibitions for a May Day festival here in Dingle (Feile na Bealtaine). Last year’s show was titled ‘AGE+less’. It was in response to the concept of ageism. We chose artists using a wide spectrum of age, from 10 years to approximately 80 years. We hoped those viewing the exhibition would find the art more important than the age of those who created it. We are currently looking to this year’s festival and incorporating an issue affecting Ireland today: homelessness. It is hoped that we, as artists can add our voices to a growing public outcry. But can art fix the problem? Can art change things socially for the better, or will it all remain the same?
In January 1990, 28 years ago,the UMVA mounted an exhibition in Portland entitled ‘Artists for the Homeless’ organized by Natasha Mayers. We vividly remember the exhibition, not so much because of our participation (we had a piece on Congress Street) but because of the controversy that followed. A few landlords whose buildings housed some of the art, removed the work that they deemed inappropriate, vulgar or distasteful. Because the artists were not told in advance of this action, the ‘shit’ hit the proverbial fan! The outcry rang across the pages of the Casco Bay Weekly and the Portland Press Herald…Censorship! Natasha Mayers believed that the topic of homelessness was a ‘non-controversial’ issue, the public thought otherwise. It ended with four of the artists’ works being removed. Today in America the word censorship is masked in new terminology: ‘Fake News’.
At present here in Ireland, there are roughly 4000 people homeless. Lots of talk and protest from arts groups, but the problem still looms large. Will art change it? Can art be the great influencer?
Back in July of this year we attended the opening of an exhibition in Galway, ‘The Art of Protest’. It showed works by artists who were influenced by political and or societal problems in Ireland. The works were graphic and in-your-face acts of passive protest. On one wall was a large color photograph of an older woman of indeterminate age. She was depicted in an orange prison jumpsuit. She sat in a comfortable looking chair in a room filled with books. The juxtaposition of the prison jumpsuit and the dignified room she sat in was striking. A little later during drinks at the reception, there she was… the woman in the orange prison suit! We discovered that she protested the refueling of American war planes at Shannon Airport. She did this by gaining access to the runway and throwing a brick at a US military transport plane. This got her 3 months and a new orange prison jumpsuit, compliments of the Irish Government. This was her drama, this was her art of protest. The military still refuels at Shannon Airport on their way to the Middle East, and the woman in the picture holds dear her orange prison jumpsuit. It is her personal talisman.
Will art ever be able to change societies’ problems? Can art influence those who refuse to look or be influenced? As artists we work for the most part in isolation. Those of us that create socio/political works, do so in the hopes that change will come about in some small way because of what we make, because of what we put forward. We hope that the art will express more than the sum of our parts and not become that jumpsuit, a personal orange talisman. We hope that what we create as artists will nudge us all forward, just a little, to a horizon. If that comes about, we might just drag along a few disbelievers.
Post script; In March of 1990 the UMVA issued a special news letter. It dealt solely with censorship and the NEA. The National Endowment for the Arts was being attacked by forces on the right for granting monies to arts organizations that purportedly were organizing pornographic exhibitions. They demanded the NEA be shut down and or suppressed. At stake was freedom of expression in general, whether it be the visual arts, or printed material. The NEA was seen as a threat to the American way of life. Arts organizations across America fought back. We continue to do so.
Tony and Pat Owen Live and Create in Co. Kerry, Ireland. Still Mainers in Our Soul.